By Guest Contributor Josh Glick, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University in Film Studies and American Studies
Les Blank was an adamant listener, a documentarian with an insatiable appetite for the aural texture of American culture. Perhaps most widely recognized for his partnership with Werner Herzog, Blank’s shy demeanor and adventurous spirit made him the perfect silent partner to chronicle the musings and production efforts of the German filmmaker. Whether gazing at Herzog “eat his shoe” as part of a bizarre bet made with then-novice documentarian Errol Morris, or picturing his grandiose effort to lug a steamship across the Peruvian jungle in Burden of Dreams (1982), Blank’s unflinching lens captured Herzog at his most erudite and arrogant.
Blank died this past April after a long battle with cancer. He was 77 years old and was midway through two projects, one on the legendary British vérité documentarian Richard Leacock and the other on the mercurial Alabama folk artist Butch Anthony. The laconic, Berkeley-based Blank was not a flagship figure of the observational cinema movement during the 1960s-70s even though he cut his teeth as a television, industrial, and independent filmmaker during the period in which the movement was most vibrant. Still, over the course of his career Blank made over 50 films and accrued lifetime achievement awards from the American Film Institute and the International Documentary Association, and retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Cinémathèque Français, Paris; and the Cineteca Nacional, Mexico City.
Born in Tampa, Florida, Blank first struggled as an aspiring novelist in college in New Orleans before deciding to pursue a career in film after seeing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). While attending film school at USC, watching Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and an encounter with the ethnographic filmmaker John Marshall motivated Blank to take the nonfiction turn. But rather than explore societies outside the United States, Blank directed his camera inward, opening America up to itself.
To be sucked into Blank’s films—many of which were made in collaboration with the talented Maureen Gosling—is to journey around the country and imbibe the everyday wisdom of artists, cooks, dancers, and musicians, individuals who subtly instruct us in the cathartic powers of cultural rituals; we “walk second line” to the expressive wale of a brass band in a New Orleans funeral procession (Always for Pleasure ); nosh on fresh delicacies with Alice Waters in Berkeley at the Gilroy Garlic festival (Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers ); sway to the Texas-Mexico Norteño music and corridos of Flaco Jiménez and Lydia Mendoza (Chulas Fronteras ); and are swept up in the Serbian kolo dances in Chicago community centers (Živeli!: Medicine for the Heart ). In these films, as in most of Blank’s productions, music and food are central, constituting great social intersections where communities negotiate solidarities and tensions among their members. At the same time, the places in which music is played and listened to, or where food is prepared and consumed, are themselves complex spaces of encounter—border towns, ports, and urban centers—places where culture is multiethnic and multilinguistic, sticky with influence and constantly evolving.
Blank worked in the tradition of renegade field-recorders and archivists like Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. But Blank was not only documenting for posterity, sociological inquiry, or a grand artistic practice, nor are his films just love letters to a country far more diverse and transnational than most people realize. His projects are loving invitations for us to learn more about the subjects we meet face-to-face through his films.
His documentaries are not definitive statements but an ensemble of provocative gestures and questions; these films tempt, goad, tantalize and mesmerize, so often bringing us beyond what is familiar and inspiring us to see our own communities afresh.